When a woman sees two little, pink lines show up on the pregnancy test; a million thoughts suddenly race through her mind. Will the baby be a boy or a girl? Who will this little guy look like? What will we call her? As questions and contemplations run through an expectant mother's mind at full speed, one thing that doesn't pop into her head is, "Will my baby have to spend time in the NICU unit?" That is one possibility that doesn't often come up unless previous problems in pregnancy make that a reality.
The NICU is a strange place. On the one hand, these vast, loud and sterile rooms full of babies are intimidating On the other hand, the NICU experience proves to be empowering and strengthening. If you can survive the days as a NICU parent, you really can conquer anything. Every parent's experience in the NICU is different. Much like life in general, it is what you make of it. One thing that mothers tend to recall from their NICU days is that when they started the journey, they just didn't know what to expect once they got there. Having a child in special care isn't something that parents are quick to conjure up and openly discuss with expectant parents.
Let us give moms a hand and offer a bit of a crash course in NICU 101. Here are 20 things that happen there that parents might not know about.
20 Baby might get called Wimpy
Try not to get too offended when a nurse caring for your newborn son refers to him as "A wimpy white boy." This is an actual term that gets thrown around the NICU unit quite a bit. No one is trying to shade your kid; they are merely referring to statistics. When it comes to preemies, white males do far worse than any other race or gender do.
White baby boys who arrive a bit on the earlier side tend to develop at slower paces than females or males of different races, and their lungs seem to develop at slower rates. Interestingly, black females seem to the best when it comes to the NICU and prematurity.
19 Spaces get personalized
Everything in the NICU can feel cold, sterile and non-personal. Those are the last adjectives you want coming to mind when you bring your baby into the world. Don't be surprised if the baby who is shacking up next to yours has a plethora of decorations adorning his small unit space. If he has been there for long enough, or his stay is looking like it's going to go on for some time, his parents and NICU staff members might have made his little isolette as fashionable as they can.
Blankets with special meaning sometimes cover isolettes, cute name tags might hang above his charts, and small stuffed animals may litter the area around his little crib. Sometimes these tiny changes in aesthetics make families feel better about leaving their newborn in such an institutional space.
18 Not everyone gets a pass into the NICU
NICUs across the country all have their own spin on visiting policies. My local NICU would not even allow me to bring my resident baby's tiny twin into the unit. Her siblings and grandparents were also a no-go. The NICU at the hospital an hour away pretty much allows anyone the parents deem appropriate into the unit to visit new babies. For NICU units that permit visitors who aren't parents, they typically have to adhere to specific hours.
Some hospitals require the parents of the NICU baby to be with the visitors while others are fine with approved people coming and going on their own. Some units allow siblings to visit infants, but they may have to show their immunization records and have their temperature taken before entry. Other hospitals do not allow siblings under the age of 14 to come into the NICU at all.
17 There are a million tests to ace per day
Your brand new baby will be a champion test taker after their stint in the NICU. This unit is known for its wide array of tests that are given to growing babies throughout their stay. Some of the more common tests that you might notice your baby undergoing are the bilirubin test, oxygen level tests, sugar level tests, blood tests, and urine tests.
Infants get measured every day, and some babies have frequent CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds to make sure that their organs are developing correctly. While these tests can be intimidating and somewhat daunting to parents, try and remind yourself that they are entirely necessary for your baby's advancement and proper growth.
16 You'll learn things you never thought possible
When you suddenly find yourself living out your days in the NICU, you are faced with learning all sorts of skills that you never saw yourself mastering. No one gets pregnant and thinks that they will give birth to a baby needing feeding tubes, breathing tubes and other special accommodations, but sometimes life has other plans for us.
When you are the mother of a newborn baby who is struggling with certain aspects of life, you will discover that you are more than equipped to handle their unique needs. Before you know it, changing out tubes and working machines and monitors are regular parts of life, and you do it easy breezy.
15 You'll become stronger than you ever knew you could be
Parents are the strongest kind of human on the planet proving themselves patient, understanding and able to survive on nothing more than a few hours of sleep and a pot of black coffee. NICU parents are a whole other level or strength and resilience though. You don't know how strong you can be until you have a newborn baby the size of a bird hooked up to machines galore.
Next time you are feeling like, "Woe is me," go ahead and consider these new NICU parents who are dealing with a host of unpleasant situations and circumstances that you don't have to deal with.
14 Breastfeeding can be a real challenge
Breastmilk is some of the most potent stuff in nature, and it benefits tiny babies who might have born earlier than expected. Some of these little ones who take up residence in the NICU are not yet strong enough to nurse, but moms can still pump milk and deliver it to the NICU for their babies to consume.
The hospital often has staff that can help new moms pump milk or even try nursing if their NICU babies seem healthy enough. Some NICU units also have a milk donation center, where other mothers kindly donate their breastmilk to tiny infants in need of the powerful stuff.
13 You will not be the boss of the baby
As parents, we tend to think of ourselves as the bosses of the babies. We assume all decisions regarding our kiddos will have to go through us first. In the NICU this isn't exactly the case. While there will be plenty of time to decide the ins and outs of your child's life once they graduate to life outside of the NICU unit, while they are there, the doctors and nurses call the shots.
Their feeding schedules, bathing routines, and medication decisions pretty much fall on the shoulders of the professionals who are there to do what is best for the babies. Don't worry, you have roughly 18 years worth of decisions in front of you. Enjoy the few weeks or months that someone is there to help you make such big decisions.
12 They have to pass the "test" to come home
From the moment your baby heads into the NICU, you will start a countdown. You will undoubtedly be counting down the days until they can come home and sleep in their sweet, little nursery as you are ticking off the achievements that they have made to help them reach that end goal.
Before your baby can come home for good, they will have to prove that they can feed solely from the bottle or the breast, maintain their body temperature, be tube-free, reach the ever significant four-pound mark, and pass the 7-day ALTE test, which includes a car seat component.
11 Baby clothes are not necessary
You likely have an entire closet full of cute, little outfits that you have gathered throughout your entire pregnancy. Tiny socks, shoes, and hats line small drawers just waiting to be worn. NICU parents will probably have to wait a bit longer until they can dress their baby up in pretty frocks.
For small newborns, clothes may not be necessary or even appropriate. If your baby has several tubes and monitoring devices attached to them or is still learning to regulate their body temperature, they might be better off in just a diaper. Your doctors and nurses will let you know when it's time to bring over the onesies and frilly frocks.
10 The space might feel crowded
NICUs are generally overcrowded places, especially compared to the single maternity room that you might have been expecting. These units can have three or four rooms with 15 babies in each room. Each baby comes with plenty of "gear" and "machinery" to help them thrive. Every baby has parents and family that comes in and out of the unit and doctors and nurses rotate about.
The NICU is a busy place that parents don't often expect, and the hustle and bustle can take a little while to get used to. While these units are a bit intimidating, curtains and dividers can be utilized to create spaces of privacy for families.
9 Your emotions might be all over the place
Giving birth is one of the most incredible experiences a woman can have. After nine months of waiting to meet your little human, the big moment comes, and they finally enter the world. For many mothers and fathers, an extended hospital stay is the last thing that they are expecting. NICU stays can bring on a wide array of emotions for parents.
They might find that the joy and delight of having a baby turn to anxiety and even sadness and desperation. It's essential for NICU parents to talk about what they are feeling and reach out for help if they are unable to shake the sadness.
8 Bonding comes in all shapes
We hear a lot about how immediate skin-to-skin contact with newborns is the absolute best thing for their health and development. Skin-to-skin contact, better known as Kangaroo Care, can decrease Apnea spells, improve oxygen saturation levels, decrease crying, and increase rapid gains in pounds.
Plenty of parents can participate in skin-to-skin opportunities while in the NICU, but others are too sick to lie on mom or dad's tummy right away. Any touch is good touch in the NICU, so don't dwell on what you can't do with your baby, concentrate on what you can do with your baby regarding physical and emotional bonding.
7 You become the Queen of Questions
Those first few hours or days as a NICU mom or dad might stifle your inquiries. The whole scene is a lot to handle, you're probably physically exacted from giving birth, and you are probably running on a combination of adrenaline and coffee. Those initial days in the NICU aren't for questions; they are for adjustments.
At some point though, you will start asking the many medical professionals assisting your infant all sorts of questions. Chances are you have so many that you won't know where to begin. Write them down to help organize your thoughts. Jot notes in regards to what doctors say. KidsHealth is a great resource full of questions to help you get started in understanding your baby's care path.
6 You'll meet many professionals
While navigating your NICU stay, many uncertainties exist. One thing that is a sure bet though is you will encounter several different professionals. There are many levels of nurses who care for your baby. There is a charge nurse, who works with your child on their shift as well as a primary nurse, who oversees your baby's progress.
A neonatologist is a specialist who heads up the medical team specializing in newborn care as well as neurologists, cardiologists, respiratory therapists, lab techs and medical students forever rotating through the unit. The babies in the NICU have many needs, and there seems to be a different professional for each specific need.
5 It's Loud
When we think of newborn babies, we think calm, quiet and lullabies. The mere idea of loud noises insulting our brand new babies' systems terrifies us. As mothers, we want nothing more than to surround out infants with comfort. New mothers of babies that earn a NICU stay can't create an environment to their liking.
NICUS are anything but dim and soothing. They are often filled with continuous bright lights and constant beeps and alerts. So the bad news is that we adults find these spaces loud and irritating. The good news is they are likely saving your struggling baby's life. The lights and beeps are there to help, not hurt.
4 The machines are intimidating
My own little NICU lady was in reasonably good shape compared to many of her tiny roommates. She spent a few weeks figuring out how to keep on breathing, but some of the other babies in there had a whole lot more to overcome before they could bust out of the unit and join their eager families at home.
While most parents are aware of what the large and clunky machine in the NICU look like, no parent can be quite prepared to see their little person in one. The mechanisms that hospital staff uses to help your baby can be nothing if not intimidating. Remember, your stay here is temporary, and the spaceship-like contraptions will soon be a distant memory.
3 Goodbye is so hard to say
Entering the NICU to spend time with your baby is a challenge in itself. I remember looking around and having a legit meltdown within the first five minutes. So many struggling babies can genuinely test your emotional strength. The only thing that is harder than walking into the NICU is walking out of the NICU.
Parents-to-be spend months waiting to bring their tiny tot home, and NICU parents have to leave their newborns in the care of strangers every day that their child stays there. Unlike maternity wards, there are no mommy-baby sleepovers in the NICU. It can be heartbreaking to leave your precious baby at the end of the day.
2 Things change really quickly
Life in the NICU is an absolute rollercoaster of an experience. It is full of minute to minute victories and unexpected setbacks. Infants who are struggling with their health might seem like they are doing great when suddenly BAM! A complication arises. NICU setbacks are hard to handle. No one wants to add anytime to their stay here.
Knowing that babies can suddenly take a turn for the worse makes parents feel stressed and anxious. It's a real challenge knowing that your baby's well-being is so out of your control. Remember, setbacks are pretty typical for NICU babies and the staff there is trained to help both them and you work through them.
1 There is one golden ticket out of the unit
Babies in the NICU have to reach a whole lot of milestones to earn their way out, and one of those is reaching an adequate size. Fact: bigger babies do better when it comes to preemies. You want your little one to pack on the pounds while they enjoy their NICU stay. Their goal usually depends on their age and the size that they started life out at.
Parents can count on their infants getting check-ins every day. The amount of fluid a NICU baby takes in, and the ounces that they keep on their bodies is taken very seriously. Celebrate every, little victory. The numbers might be small, but growth is a huge thing in this strange NICU world.
Sources: howstuffworks.com, kidshealth.org, midwiferytoday.com, pregnantchicken.com,